School Climate & Safety

Superintendent Faces Discipline After Authorizing Active-Shooter Drill With Mask, Fake Gun

By Denisa R. Superville — July 17, 2019 5 min read
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A superintendent is facing backlash and possible disciplinary action after he authorized an active-shooter drill that allegedly included a school employee wearing a mask and holding a fake gun during the activity.

Teachers in California’s Raisin City school district told local reporters that during the June 3 drill students were in tears. One teacher said he pulled a fire extinguisher and swung it at the district employee.

Did the superintendent go too far?

Kenneth Trump, a school safety expert who is hired by districts to consult on security issues, said that while school and district administrators are under tremendous pressure to push the envelope when it comes to preparing for active-shooter situations, this case was “over the top.”

The Raisin City school district—with a single elementary school in California’s Central Valley—is not alone in trying to make these active-shooter drills more realistic. Teachers in Indiana were shot execution-style with plastic pellets during active-shooter training with local law enforcement, the Indiana State Teachers Association testified last year during a legislative hearing on a school safety.

“What makes it over-the-top is the fact that it’s made extremely realistic, extremely scary, extremely traumatic, without considering the context in which it is being deployed,” Trump said.

“This is not a context of police officers or military professionals, who deal with the most extreme of the extreme,” he continued. “These are educators, support staff members, and, most importantly children, who are in a child-oriented educational setting.

“When you pass the line of reasonableness, you enter a zone where you do more harm. And the golden rule is do no harm with these drills. And these types of drills, such as the one in California, certainly pass the line of reasonableness,” he said.

Further, the realistic drills may inflict trauma on children, whose brains are still developing, and adults as they prepare for a situation that’s statistically rare, Trump said.

“It’s a balancing act,” Trump said. “The more vivid the violent action, the imagery, and anxiety that’s created, you are most likely, in that scenario, doing unnecessary harm to both children and adults for an event that most likely will never occur.”

“I worry increasingly about the impact of over-the-top drills—putting teachers in a room and shooting them with a pellet gun, that’s unnecessary,” Trump said. “They don’t learn, and they become more traumatized and terrified and feel less competent to manage a real situation than if you had a reasonable professional development.”

Best practices not followed in California drill

Raisin City teachers told local media that they were purposefully not told about the drill in advance by Superintendent Juan Sandoval because he wanted it to appear more realistic.

Danny Nason, a 3rd grade teacher, told the Fresno Bee that he instructed his students to go into lockdown position after spotting someone outside of his classroom holding what appeared to be a rifle. He swung the fire extinguisher at the person he thought was an intruder, who was trying to open his classroom door, Nason told the Bee.

“What kind of lasting effect it’s going to have I don’t know, but I think that this should never happen again,” Nason told ABC Fresno.

The National Association of School Psychologists and the National Association of School Resource Officers developed a set of guidelines that the two organizations say are best practices that schools can follow for designing and active-shooter and armed assailant drills in schools.

The guidance specifically cautions schools about the use of simulations involving “props” and to keep simulation techniques “appropriate to the participants’ development maturity.” Further, the guidance states that if props are decided to be necessary, “inform the participants of the use and purpose of props and simulation aids prior to the drill.”

Consequences for the superintendent?

The local teachers union and the California Teachers Association have called on Sandoval to be removed.

“While the sad reality is that school shooting and lockdown drills have become a necessary safety precaution at schools across the nation, such drills are intended to prevent or minimize both physical and psychological trauma to students, not to cause actual trauma and leave drill participants terrified,” the California Teachers Association said in a statement.

“The safety of students and schools will always be a top priority for educators, and terrible decisions such as holding this drill undermine schools as a safe place to learn and grow.”

At a school board meeting this week, teachers and some parents demanded that Sandoval, who was not in attendance, resign, the Bee reported.

The school board voted 5-0 to take “disciplinary action” against the superintendent and will likely schedule another meeting to announce their decision. Sandoval will also have the opportunity to respond at a future meeting, the paper said.

Superintendents and principals are under tremendous pressure from parents and school communities to take visible measures to show that they are taking school safety threats seriously. They are also being bombarded with conflicting information from various sources—from local police to vendors selling products they say will improve school safety—on what they should do. They are not always aware of the best practices, Trump said.

“Superintendents and principals are feeling the pressure to do something—do anything, do it fast and do it differently,” he said. “Doing something fast and doing it differently does not mean you are doing it better.”

Trump said he does not doubt that the California superintendent was well-intentioned, but he questioned the decision-making process that led up to the drill.

A lot of the things that can be done to make schools safer are less visible or invisible to parents and the community.

They include things like threat assessments, mental health interventions and supports for students, reasonable training and drills, he said. Running drills at different times of day—including in the morning, during lunch, or between class changes, can also help districts be better prepared, he said.

A half a day workshop with the building and district crisis teams, first responders, community partners, board of education members, and parents to review the districts’ crises response plan and work through a hypothetical incident could lead to better preparedness and a better emergency plans than high-profile “realistic” exercises, Trump said.

That also can help the district strengthen emergency planning because they can get critical perspectives from other constituents—like teachers, secretaries, and others—who many not have been involved when the plan was created.

“It increases confidence and competence without creating trauma and anxiety,” he said.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.